A Crop of Recordings VIII
DVOŘÁK Cello Concerto. MARTINŮ Cello Concerto No.1 • Thomas Dausgaard, conductor; Christian Poltéra (cello); Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin • BIS-2157 (63:18)
“If only I had known it could be done like this!” So enthused Brahms the first time he heard Dvořák’s Cello Concerto—then as now probably the greatest work for cello and orchestra ever written. “If only Brahms could hear this performance,” I’m tempted to say! Thomas Dausgaard seems to have a musical green thumb. Touch something and it springs to life with unexpected flips of energy and color—Schubert and Schumann Symphonies with his Swedish Chamber Orchestra only among the most recent successes.
This CD is extraordinary. Christian Poltéra is the silkiest of cellists, a pupil of Heinrich Schiff, himself all satin and elision. Poltéra can break your heart with a melody in an instant—and without a scrape. The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester benefits not only from Dausgaard’s remarkable sense of rhythm, high spirits and plummy climaxes, but from the fact that its Music Director—Tugan Sokhiev—is also known for refinement in his own approach. Whatever the confluence of benign influences—and throw in BIS’s effortlessly deep sound for good measure—I’d be tempted to vote this Dvořák performance into the Hall of Fame right now—yes, alongside Rostropovich, Karajan and Giulini. It’s that good. My only small quibble would be a touch of French horn vibrato in the great first movement melody—lightly applied but surprising in a German orchestra.
Martinů has a lot to live up to in this cello concerto from the early thirties. That it belongs in the same company on CD says much for it. Martinů was a pupil of Albert Roussel. Both composers were determined to avoid the climactic “bloviating” they disliked in Strauss and Mahler. Each in his own way took Stravinsky’s lean lines and fashioned a new sort of musical luxury—in Martinů’s case short gorgeous melodies and smash-bang tonal climaxes of remarkable beauty and ease. When Martinů punches you out, it’s fun, and you land on a trampoline. And of course, he gets much of that ability and spirit from Dvořák.
Occasionally, Martinů turns “American” in the Roy Harris mode, the way Hindemith did after a time. (This concerto was in fact revised in 1955.) The first movement’s primary lyrical melody even sounds English, suggesting Vaughan Williams gone Biblical. It wouldn’t be out of place in Ben Hur. As the music proceeds I hear more and more that could be said to sound English. But it’s probably just that I’m noticing the harmonic “sweet spot” so many twentieth century composers found to avoid tone rows. Rachmaninoff, Walton, Hindemith, Roussel, Martinů—all shortened their melodies and made their climaxes punch rather than breast-beat. This is the twentieth century music which has stayed with us—the acerbic rest largely forgotten. I’ve always had a great love for Dvořák. He’s done full justice here. And I’ve never loved Martinů more than now.
RAVEL Orchestral Works, Vol. 3 – Orchestrations • Leonard Slatkin, conductor; Lyon National Orchestra • NAXOS 8.573124 (60:58)
MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition. SCHUMANN Carnaval. DEBUSSY Sarabande. Danse. CHABRIER Menuet Pompeux.
Leonard Slatkin is something of a Mussorgsky scholar. He’s recorded Pictures at an Exhibition twice before, with the St. Louis Symphony and the National Philharmonic of London. Here he continues a Ravel series as Music Director in Lyon and contributes his own orchestration of a Mussorgsky Promenade which Ravel decided to omit. It occurs between the picture-variations Samuel Goldberg and Limoges.
Orchestrations are funny things, like accents in speech. You can tell immediately Slatkin isn’t Ravel. His “Promenade”does nothing swollen or Stokowskian—yet never quite achieves Ravel’s gleaming transparency. Even Ravel didn’t always duplicate that in his other attempts. Pictures is the only transcription I know so perfect, it never reminds you of the piano. But it’s fine, done with Slatkin’s extra “walk.”
Of the remaining efforts here, Chabrier’s march-like menuet is the most effective. It’s high energy—rich and punchy—with cymbals and bass drum. You almost forget it started out as a piano piece, until a persistent weirdness hits you. Where are the timpani? And of course, that’s the problem with a piano. Most piano music doesn’t do what drum rolls do in the proper register. High trills are more likely. So “orchestration” really becomes a game of hide the omission. The other problem with piano music is how to hide the presence of far too many notes noodling around trying to keep up the volume. This is hard to do. There’s no such thing in piano music as a sustained one-chord crescendo.
Ravel’s setting of Schumann’s Carnaval starts out brassily, as if it were the Spring Symphony, then gets awkward in the way we’ve just mentioned. Valse Allemande works well, all strings and silk. But the problem of big climaxes being somehow hollow and lacking returns in March Against the Philistines. Ravel only orchestrated four fragments. Perhaps that’s why.
Ravel gets nicely sad and wah-wah-trumpety in the Debussy. It comes out sounding more like Ravel than Debussy at times. Older listeners may know these shorter transcriptions well from lunch radio—if you want to be cynical about it—and are used to them. But that doesn’t really mean they work that well. I still prefer them on the piano.
All such judgment aside, this is an interesting CD—but perhaps more worthy than exciting. Slatkin’s performance of Pictures is on the tame side—a bit dark and Brahmsian with more portamento than we usually hear. The Lyon brass purr nicely. But the energy level is not exactly electric. And charm is intermittent. The hall doesn’t help in Lyon. Everything is recorded at a distance with a rock solid bass—but a suggestion of the tunnel. This isn’t one of those kaleidoscopic releases in SACD format. We all have our favorites, of course. Ozawa with the Chicago Symphony on RCA is still mine—ultra-virtuosic and transparently recorded after forty years—it jumps off the page.
LUTOSŁAWSKI Concerto for Orchestra. Little Suite. Symphony No. 4 • Krzysztof Urbański, conductor; North German Radio Symphony Orchestra • ALPHA-CLASSICS ALPHA 232 (56:15)
Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, premiered in 1954, is one of the last twentieth century symphonic works to achieve triumphant popularity and untrained appreciation. It’s a finely honed three-movement symphony, uncomplicated in its emotional appeal and openly sonorous. Lutosławski remained essentially tonal at the end, after many modernist experiments. Like Ginastera, he taps modernism mostly for spice, effect and harmonic interest in the pieces which interest audiences. His short Fourth Symphony, written in 1986, reveals a tightening of style, but comes across like Bartók or Kodály updated with bongo drums and heard through a telescope. Its long pull of sustained purring chords takes us back to the Sibelius Seventh.
Lutosławski avoids here the extremes of modernist style, especially the parched stasis of dodecaphonic tone rows. Every chord sounds well and is going somewhere, often passionately and always with warmth. Bits of chorale melody here and there are good ones. Not surprisingly, you encounter echoes of Britten and other contemporaries. Lutosławski’s Fourth Symphony ends like the storm in Peter Grimes. But I was intrigued to note that the Passacaglia in Concerto for Orchestra takes as much from Henri Dutilleux’s underappreciated First Symphony as from Britten. Dutilleux starts out with similar low plucked basses and eerie woodwind chords peering through. Indeed, there’s a lot of Dutilleux here—quoth the detective. The Little Suite, as “little suites” tend to be, is a bit more Stravinskian and light, but charming as can be.
It never hurts to begin well. The Concerto for Orchestra hits pay dirt immediately with a sonorous pounding thwack and a surging bass line. Krzysztof Urbański does it better than I have ever heard. Bass drums supposedly have no pitch but often seem to—are necessarily located in an acoustic that has coloration, and sometimes they seem out of tune with what’s happening. Here, the result is an immediate punch of gleaming brass, drums, smooth strings and galvanic excitement which continues unabated. The sound is perfection—the best recording I have ever heard from Hamburg’s soon to be replaced Laeiszhalle.
Urbański has just been appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the NDR Symphony, Hamburg’s most important orchestra. He is clearly passionate about Lutosławski and wrote a personal testimonial to his eagerness for this to be his first recording with them. Listeners take heed. This labor of love is lovely.
CASELLA Symphonies (Complete). La donna serpente Suites Nos. 1-2 • Gianandrea Noseda, conductor; BBC Philharmonic Orchestra • CHANDOS 10895(2) (2CDs:156:03)
If Mahler ever persuaded Puccini to write three symphonies, this is what they probably would have sounded like. There’s everything here from Harold in Italy to the kitchen sink. I don’t normally cheer eclectics, but this CD set is surprisingly enjoyable. The sound is vibrant. And both Noseda and the composer appear as joyous purveyors of sweepingly rich emotions. Alfredo Casella knew how to orchestrate—and then some—and apparently absorbed every romantic influence to be had. Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) was from Respighi’s generation. We forget Strauss and Mahler didn’t exhaust the sounds a great ensemble can make—nor extract from music’s past the only permissible synthesis of style.
Casella’s 1906 First Symphony has many evident forbears—it starts out like Glazunov—yet winds up with a noble Brahmsian melody seemingly orchestrated by Respighi. It holds together astonishingly well and keeps moving. Casella loves energetic fugal developments. He doesn’t bore us. But good intentions are perhaps more lasting than our memory.
The Second Symphony, written in 1910, is a different story. We’re now in the territory of Elgar, Suk’s Asrael and the Mahler Seventh. This is a sweeping, mammoth work, a grand and worthy piece. It begins portentously over bells. This theme reappears as a motto. Casella has a special feel for low slung brasses and rich bardic progression. The whole room shudders. A soaring first movement melody reminds one of Franz Schmidt. You can tell he’s trying out every chord Mahler didn’t quite think of. And many of them work well—especially the heartfelt writing on high strings. There are spots in late Mahler, for instance, where the whole orchestra shrieks into a wounded glissando and stops dead, as if somebody had pulled the plug. Casella finds reason to do that sort of thing numerous times—not to mention coming up with a Mahlerian march or two of his own. The entire symphony moves gorgeously underfoot, deeply sprung on some of the best sound I’ve ever heard—the creepy chromatics of the slow movement are quite a wave to ride. At one point you think the piece has ended, after a good bit of slow marching reminiscent of Parsifal—it sounds like Bernard Herrmann keeling over with a slither. But no. There’s still a Mahlerian movement to come. It begins like a noble epilog and ends with full blast organ, trumpets, bells and timpani.
The Third Symphony and La donna serpente (the snake woman) date from the 1930s. By this time Casella had tightened up his style to be more astringent and telegraphic. But his essential characteristics remain: a tendency to go crash-thump whenever he can in a nice sonorous way, and a rich vein of Respighian melody to pour over the listener like olive oil.
One does wonder ultimately, of course, whether all of this is too much of a good thing. I’m reminded of Leonard Bernstein, who said of his own Second Symphony—It’s pure Warner Brothers. But I meant it. Casella’s not a bad comparison, since the Second Symphony sounds cinematic before its time. Eclectic to a fault, Casella wound up, of all things, conducting the Boston Pops before Arthur Fiedler.
These CDs parallel a recent Naxos series with Francesco La Vecchia and the Rome Symphony—indeed the only other versions of the symphonies available. La Vecchia’s approach seems superficially similar, until you realize passage after passage plods along like a sight-reading and leaves the listener bored. The BBC Philharmonic is head and shoulders greater as an orchestra. And Noseda really gives us a performance.
WEINBERGER Overture to a Chivalrous Play. 6 Bohemian Songs and Dances. Passacaglia • Gerd Albrecht, conductor; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin • CAPRICCIO C5272 (56:52)
The charm of this music comes almost as a complete surprise. If ever there was a one trick pony, Czech composer Jaromir Weinberger is surely it. His opera, Schwanda the Bagpiper, was a smash success in 1927. Despite a catalog of one hundred works, he never really lived it down. Culturally and physically displaced by the war, Weinberger taught in the US but found little success for his music, ultimately landing in St. Petersburg, Florida. It’s hard to think of a place less Czech. In 1967, following a diagnosis of brain cancer, Weinberger committed suicide. The joviality and tunefulness of Schwanda still occasionally reaches concert listeners in the form of its Polka and Fugue. But the rest of Weinberger’s output remains a black hole on CD.
Weinberger’s music sounds like Dvořák updated—sometimes into Janáček—witness the Intrada of the Passacaglia—but more often in the direction of Humperdinck and Schmidt. Weinberger is simply too cheerful to be cutting and modern. And he was accused—rightly I think—of constantly referring to Schwanda in his subsequent works. A good bit of it pops up here and there. But the saving grace of these occasional pieces is that they manage to sound perky and affectionate—like cozy scenes from the silver screen—without sounding silly. Weinberger seems a natural to have been another Korngold. His music starts and stops and hesitates the way real people do. But he appears not to have worked in Hollywood.
Everything here, nonetheless, is of high quality. The overture has the perfect sort of elegant snark to be the opening of a classic “chivalrous”drama. Oh—think something like Kind Hearts and Coronets or The Wrong Box. The Bohemian songs and dances are mostly slow concertante pieces, gorgeously affectionate, swoopy, and moving. They are gentle—minus the rousing furiants that ensure Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances keep appearing on the concert stage. The Passacaglia is for organ and orchestra. Fortunately, it totally avoids the blattiness of such pieces. And it contains a silky chorale like the one in the finale of the Bruckner Seventh—updated for operetta. There is little grandiosity in Weinberger, it seems—but an endless font of waltz melody.
Gerd Albrecht, now deceased, recorded these pieces in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche in 2000 and 2002, but I have not seen them released before now—and know of no other performances. As it is, they are the only show in town. The sound is lovely—the orchestra in a serene mood—and Weinberger’s music lovelier still.